You develop a sense about people who seem a little "off," and this woman gave that impression. Something about the hair, the clothes, the walk, the bag. It all said "odd." Not the good kind of odd?#34;i.e. the diversity kind. This smacked of mental illness.
It also seemed odd that in an otherwise empty half of the Cosi cafe on a Tuesday night, she settled in next to my table in the corner.
I was writing in my notebook, jotting ideas for my holiday form letter, which is how I stay connected with a lot of the people in my life I never see otherwise.
I was busy and didn't want to be interrupted. But I wasn't surprised when she asked, "Do you like Oak Park?"
I said I did, and she replied, "I used to but not anymore."
Uh oh, I thought, here it comes ... parking complaints. Instead, she asked if I were from Oak Park. I said yes. She was, too, said she went to OPRF. She looked a little younger than I, but might have been my age. I thought what I usually think in these circumstances: Not everybody makes it.
She then launched into a litany of grievances involving the police, social workers, people beating her up, the village not letting her make a living. She just wanted to make a living.
If only everyone could, I thought. I could have listened politely, but I've been in these situations before, and the mentally ill do tend to go on?#34;conspiratorially and indefinitely. I could have tried the straightforward approach and told her as gently as possible that I was busy and needed to get back to work, but that probably would have just gone into her catalog of grievances?#34;man's inhumanity to her.
I chose to ignore her and go back to my scribblings. She didn't ask me any more direct questions, so I could ignore her without being overtly rude about it. After a short time, she stopped talking.
I don't contend that this was the best way to handle the situation. I don't really know the best way to handle these situations. It was simply the one I chose. Sometimes, I just don't want to be engaged and don't feel very sensitive.
About 15 minutes later, I packed up to leave. As I put on my coat, I turned looked her in the eye, and said, "I hope things start to go better for you," with as much kindness as I could muster. I meant it.
And for the first time I can recall, I fervently wished my words had the power to heal. Doctors and therapists must wish that from time to time, too.
She said, "Thank you," and I left.
When I write, I wish my words had the power to convince, and by convincing, to change someone's mind, and by changing someone's mind, to cure them of some "untruth." But that's wishful thinking. I don't possess the "truth."
And I've found people are very resistant to having their minds changed. We hold strong opinions that divide us, and words to the contrary just feel like an assault against our mental defenses. In my 20 years as a newspaper columnist, I'm only aware of one instance in which I changed someone's mind, and that's only because he was open-minded enough to listen.
I wonder if we all don't frequently mistake other people's conviction for arrogance, and mistake our own arrogance for conviction, myself included. Conviction minus open-mindedness equals arrogance. Open-mindedness begins with a willingness to listen. A closed mind?#34;to the extent of the closure?#34;is a form of mental illness. Our divided nation, then, could be characterized as mentally ill.
I hope things start to go better for us.